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  Underwood & Underwood (Biography)

Photographic entrepreneurs Elmer and Bert Underwood, the sons of Reverend E. Underwood, were born respectively in 1859 and 1862. Living first in Illinois, the family later settled in Ottawa, Kansas, and the boys did what they could to ease their constant financial burdens. After attending college, Elmer went to work at a local printing office while Bert found work at a grocery store. In 1859, young Elmer Underwood established his own printing business, which quickly became successful. Meanwhile, Bert continued to struggle, and went to Kansas City, where he was hired by the White Sewing Machine Company. When this proved not to his liking, he returned to Ottawa, where he became a traveling salesman, selling medical books door to door. As a book agent, he became acquainted with several neighboring territories, and on one of his business travels, he met a smalltime peddler of stereoscopic views. Although considered outdated by this time, the younger Underwood believed that there was a potentially lucrative market for stereoscopic views if the proper organization was in place. He then convinced his older brother to join this new venture, which began operating under the name Underwood & Underwood in 1881.

Shortly thereafter, the brothers had a team of agents representing their company in both Kansas and Missouri. Within a few years, the business had expanded further Midwest and into the West, with migration into the South, Rockies, Puget Sound completed by the spring of 1885. Although their main source of operations remained in Ottawa, the Underwoods opened a supply house in Baltimore that was subsequently moved to New York City. The domestic success led to further growth with houses opening in Ontario, Canada and Liverpool, England. By 1890, Underwood & Underwood was either shipping directly or through their agents to most of Europe, Scandinavia, Central America, Asia, and the south Pacific.

In 1896, Underwood & Underwood further expanded its profit margin by selling photographs to newspapers and magazines. Within five years, the company was producing an impressive 25,000 daily prints, selling more than 300,000 photographs annually. The Underwoods opened their own news photo agency in 1904, which enjoyed both power and prestige for the next three decades. They also added Underwood Travel System "stereoscopic tours" product packages that featured various events, cultures, and geographical marvels. These boxed sets were unique in that the prints accompanied notes or booklets that painstakingly detailed exactly what the viewer was seeing, offering one of the first virtual travel experiences.

Underwood & Underwood remained a top producer in the stereographic field, competing successfully against large houses like E. & H. T. Anthony in the late-nineteenth century and Keystone View Company in the twentieth century. However, the advent of motion pictures significantly diminished the popular appeal of stereographic views, and the ever-astute brothers decided to sell out to Keystone in 1920. They retired five years later, and left the business in the capable hands of their brothers and grandsons. Elmer Underwood died in Tucson, Arizona in 1943, and Bert passed away in St. Petersburg, Florida in 1947. Although the Underwood & Underwood news agency found increasing competition with the industry powerhouses Associated Press and United Press International, it continued operations into the 1980s.

2000 Enterprising Images (Detroit: Wayne State University), p. 86.

1894 The Photographic Journal of America, Vol. XXXI (New York: Edward L. Wilson), pp. 66-69, 111.

2012 Underwood & Underwood (URL:

1983 Photographic Artists and Innovators

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2013-01-26 13:19:59

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